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Art Pick of the Week: Death Triumphant

Every week we’re sharing one of our favourite artworks from the AGO Collection for you to see on your next visit.

A wooden carving of a skeleton holding a shovel and a bow and arrow.

German (Bavaria ?). Death Triumphant, c. 1670. Lindenwold, Overall: 24 x 13.5 x 7.5 cm. The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Photo: Michael Cullen. AGOID.29269

Daylight savings time is just around the corner. We all know what that means… lots of darkness! Tucked away in a darkened gallery on the Level 1 in the Thomson Collection of European Art (Gallery 111), you will find this week’s eerie art pick, Death Triumphant an intriguing wooden carving amongst a collection of memento mori works.

A Latin phrase, memento mori roughly translates to ‘remember that you must die.’ In art terms, memento mori artworks were common household items from the late middle ages and renaissance. True to their name, Christians collected these objects to remind them of their inevitable death. Though they may look spooky now, these sculptures, paintings and rosary beads were originally meant to help parishioners stay on the path of righteousness by reminding them that their actions on earth had an impact on their soul in the afterlife.

At the AGO, we have a number of these objects, including Death Triumphant - a grisly sculpture carved in Germany around 1670. Depicting a skeletal corpse with decaying flesh and wriggling worms, the jaunty figure is meant to personify death. In one hand, the figure holds a bow and arrow, in the other, a shovel. These objects are meant to signify death’s never-ending hunt for human flesh, while the title of the work is meant to remind viewers that death will always triumph over the living. Dark indeed.

If you take a closer look, you’ll notice that most of Death Triumphant is carved from a single piece of Lindwood. Given the small scale and intricate details, including hollowing the sculpture, it’s clear the artist responsible for this spine-tingling work was incredibly skilled. Displayed at the centre of a number of other memento mori works, take a look at all the spook on display Level 1 in the Thomson Collection of European Art (Gallery 111).   

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